“One of the Severest Strokes that Could have been Meditated Against Us”: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, West Point, and British Strategy
TOPICS: Benedict Arnold, Featured Document(s), George Washington, Revolutionary War
by Jeffrey L. Zvengrowski, Assistant Editor
April 6, 2018
Benedict Arnold infamously schemed with Maj. John André, the British adjutant general, to help Britain take West Point in 1780. Yet, how did Arnold actually plan to betray the 11 Continental and militia regiments under his command at or near West Point’s fortifications? The British, moreover, had grander goals in mind than capturing West Point on a kind of large-scale raid. Indeed, when George Washington came to West Point on Sept. 25 after discussing strategy with Lieutenant General Rochambeau at Hartford, he not only foiled Arnold’s design but a British gambit to win the war.
André met Arnold near Haverstraw, N.Y., on Sept. 21, only to be captured two days later. In the apprehended André’s possession was a document that Arnold had written and Washington would call “the disposition of the Artillery Corps in case of an Alarm.”1 After learning of André’s arrest, Arnold fled to the British on the morning of Sept. 25 from his headquarters at Beverly Robinson’s house on the other side of the Hudson River from West Point. “He knew of my approach,” Washington explained a day later, “and that I was visiting with the Marquiss [Lafayette] the North & Middle [South] Redoubts.”2
Washington proceeded to inspect West Point during the afternoon of Sept. 25. He quickly surmised that British forces were to land near Haverstraw and head north to attack West Point’s fortifications on the western side of the Hudson. He responded in the evening by moving two Continental brigades from New Jersey in order to obstruct any potential British advance against those fortifications, shifting troops on the eastern side of the Hudson closer to West Point, and transferring soldiers from West Point “so as to have a proportion of Men in each Work on the West side of the River.”3
Washington would receive the Arnold document that André had secreted by Sept. 26, when he wrote New York governor George Clinton that “I found the post in the most critical condition and have been taking measures to give it security which I hope will be to night effectual.”4 Confirming that effective measures had been taken to foil Arnold’s plan, Maj. Gen. Robert Howe wrote Washington from Orangetown, N.Y., that same day:
Rocky Hill at West Point is a very commanding situation; possess’d by the Enemy Fort Putnam is in Danger, & that Commands Fort Arnold…. The Work upon Rocky Hill is weak—& on that Side where it is most easily approachable the weakest Part of it—Examine it you will find that Grounds within Point Blank Distance are elevated enough to batter it in Breach—& that the Work is not Cannon Proof—nor is it assisted with any Battery from which Cannon can be opposed to Cannon—[n]or is it pierced for Cannon on that Side—These are capital Defects which… I strongly recommended to General Arnold to attend to—& which is the more necessary as the Enemy may approach it… unassayed by any Work we have—Genl Arnold surveyed those Works in my Company, & dwelt much upon the Defects of each—He spoke so particularly of the Rocky Hill Work, & with what Ease it could be taken as struck me oddly even then—tho’ I had not the least Suspicion of him.5
Arnold had attempted to accommodate and anticipate British strategic concerns by writing André a cryptic letter, dated Aug. 30. In this letter, Arnold recommended delaying a British embarkation from New York City against West Point, even though “A specculation might at this time be easily made to some advantage with ready money.” Arnold continued:
But there is not the quantity of goods at Market which your partiner seems to suppose, and the Number of Speculators below I think will be against your making an immediate purchase, I apprehend goods will be in greater plenty and much Cheaper in the Course of the season… some quantity are expected in this part of the Country soon.6
André did not receive that letter, but he still came upriver to begin setting a British attack in motion when Arnold knew that Washington was no longer in New Jersey to direct a rapid response by sending the Continental army to relieve West Point or attack the provisions-pinched British garrison at New York City.7
Arnold, however, did not realize that the ambition of Henry Clinton, André’s commander, extended far beyond West Point. Clinton wrote in his memoirs that a British embarkation was fully prepared to move upriver from New York City, having been disguised as an “expedition for the Chesapeake (which enabled me to make every requisite preparation without being suspected).”8 However, Albany, rather than West Point, would have been the ultimate goal of that embarkation because Clinton aimed to sever New York from New England after capturing General Washington.
Washington refused to receive William Smith, the Loyalist chief justice of New York, as an emissary whom Clinton sent on Oct. 1 to avert André’s impending execution.9 Smith’s brother Joshua had taken André to the meeting with Arnold.10 William Smith wrote in the Sept. 28 entry of his memoirs that a distressed Clinton had confided to him at New York City “That he had every Thing ready for seizing the Highlands and putting an End, he owned, to the War; for he had Boats of all Draughts for proceeding to Albany.” Clinton further explained that he would have “seized the [West Point] Forts with 5000, and had 5000 more ready, for he thought the Militia sufficient to take Care of this Place.” And “He regretted this Disappointment as the Loss [of] his Hope of an Instantaneous Termination of the War; said he should have had both Washington and Rochambeau Prisoners, for they were both there [at West Point] now.”11
1. George Washington to William Heath, Sept. 26, 1780, MHi: Heath Papers.
3. George Washington to Nathaniel Wade, Sept. 25, 1780, DLC:GW. See George Washington to Nathanael Greene, Sept. 25, 1780, DLC:GW; George Washington to Anthony Wayne, Sept. 25, 1780, MiU-C: Schoff Collection; George Washington to Ebenezer Gray, Sept. 25, 1780; and George Washington to Caleb Low, Sept. 25, 1780, DLC:GW.
4. George Washington to George Clinton, Sept. 26, 1780, NHi: George and Martha Washington Papers. See George Washington to William Heath, Sept. 26, 1780, MHi: Heath Papers.
5. Robert Howe to George Washington, Sept. 26, 1780, DLC:GW.
6. Gustavus (Benedict Arnold) to John Anderson (John André), Aug. 30, 1780, enclosed in Samuel Holden Parsons to GW, Oct. 1, 1780, DLC:GW.
7. See George Washington to Benedict Arnold, Sept. 14, 1780, NN: Harkness Collection.
8. William B. Willcox, ed., The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775–1782, with an Appendix of Original Documents (New Haven, 1954), 216.
9. See Henry Clinton to George Washington, Sept. 30, 1780, DLC:GW; and GW to Samuel Huntington, Oct. 7, 1780, DNA:PCC, item 152.
10. See Benedict Arnold to George Washington, Oct. 1, 1780, DLC:GW.
11. William H. W. Sabine, ed., Historical Memoirs… of William Smith, Historian of the Province of New York (New York, 1956–58), 2:335. Clinton likely confused Major General Lafayette with Lieutenant General Rochambeau, who returned to his army at Rhode Island after the Hartford conference.